Yksi, a band I would describe as having predominantly folk and rock influences, threads their album NeverEnding Tales with a fascinating combination of lyricism and visceral emotional pain. Indeed, one thorough listen of this work can have a marked effect on your emotions; it sinks you into the ocean and then pulls you out, gasping, but only after you’ve spent enough time in the waters to see your life flash in front of your eyes.
Instrumentation is often sparse, sometimes featuring nothing more than vocals, guitar and background electronic elements, yet songs come across as very poignant and memorable. Yoo Hangyeol‘s voice, sinuous and carrying just a bit of grit, is a powerful force throughout the album. NeverEnding Tales includes lyrics sung in both English and Korean; they frequently explore themes of destruction, loss, and rebirth. The narrative prowess of NeverEnding Tales is built on its succinct, imagery-evoking verse.
The album begins with a vocal mantra on “Fire,” accompanied by a simple beat and ambient effects; towards its latter half it explodes with the introduction of electric guitars. “Lies” is a cryptic, ominously distorted recording of speech that leads into “A.W.,” a swinging rock piece.
“Cigarettes” and “밤바야” are two rather unconventional songs. The main hook of “Cigarettes” is a layered chant that portrays a nasty addiction to tobacco. Masochistic, yet oddly attractive, its weirdness is topped off by a pitch-shifted vocal line. “밤바야,” which reminds me of a campfire song, is sung in an unusual high-pitched fashion that I can’t quite describe, and at least musically, it is the most light-hearted track of the album.
Following up is the stirring suite of “Smoke” and “Fire pt.2.” An underlying drone lends “Smoke” a heavy air, though its simple acoustic line and haunting vocals soar through as the standpoint of the song. The steady layering of voices throughout “Smoke” suddenly relents and gives way to strumming, transitioning into the cathartic “Fire pt.2” As its name suggests, “Fire pt.2” is a continuation of the opening song; it grows in ferocity and ends with an impassioned guitar solo.
“Kingdom of Words” is beautifully melancholic, as are the bittersweet “안” and “Sara/Bluebird.” All rely on the flawless performance of Yoo Hangyeol, whose never-faltering voice deftly conveys emotional nuances and shows an impressive dynamic range. “The Wizard” reminisces of a better past, juxtaposing fantastical themes with the sadly mundane (“flooding bills” and “bouncing checks”).
“그러니까 연락 좀 받아” feels utterly resigned; however, it is set in a major key that belies its overall mood. What could have been a very forlorn song instead possesses a glimmer of hope, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
NeverEnding Tales is dense, unembellished, making use of negative space to establish its emotional atmosphere. In a way, the album requires you to invest yourself into the space it creates; you cannot simply be a passive recipient of what it presents. Its composition is judicious, without a hint of the unnecessary; its melodies are straightforward, yet heartfelt.
Don’t be afraid of the ocean and the flames. Dive in.